From 1983-1998, the San Francisco 49ers defense ranked in the top 10 in sacks in 11-of-16 seasons. In the 20 years since, it’s accomplished that feat just three times. While finding players who can consistently rush the passer has obviously been an issue for some time, it’s been especially bad lately, as the team has ranked 21st or lower in each of the last four campaigns.
When you consider just how anemic things have been, it’s no surprise John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan made it a point to address the issue, and added major pieces this offseason in Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. Now, the question isn’t if the 49ers can get to the quarterback, but how many times.
In 1997, Dana Stubblefield, Chris Doleman, and Kevin Greene each had 10 or more sacks a piece, and that was the last time San Francisco had three players hit double digits in the same year. It’s fair to wonder if that feat can happen again with Ford, Bosa, and DeForest Buckner all having the ability to get there.
Ford, who comes to the bay after five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, was acquired for a 2020 second-round pick. After a slow start to his career, the former first-rounder registered 10 sacks in 2016, but struggled with injuries the following year and saw his total dip to two in six games. Ford would rebound in a big way however, dropping opposing quarterbacks 13 times in 2018, and finishing with 78 total pressures and 45 hurries. According to Pro Football Focus, Ford had the highest pass rush grade of any edge defender at 91.0.
On the opposite side of Ford will be Bosa, who the 49ers took with the number two overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Bosa was seen by many as the top player available, and the Niners were fortunate to see an edge defender of his caliber fall into their laps. Bosa has a high motor, NFL ready pass rush moves, and was a force in college. Even in an injury shorted Junior year at Ohio State, Bosa still managed four sacks and six tackles for loss in just three games.
The two newcomers will join Buckner, who is in many ways the stalwart of the defensive line. In 2018, Bucker was the first 49er since Aldon Smith to have 12 sacks in a season and registered 53 total pressures. It’s scary to think what he’s capable of with two legitimate threats on the outside to take some of the opposing offense’s attention away from him.
As if the previously mentioned trio wasn’t enough, the Niners still think the best is yet to come from former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. The two only managed four combined sacks last year, but both could be far more productive rushing from the inside consistently which is more natural for them.
While this unit certainly looks good on paper, it has to perform on the field, and how that all comes together is yet to be determined. Still, it’s hard to argue that if all goes as planned, the 49ers will boast one of deepest and most talented defensive lines in the game.